On Monday evening, A Li sat with her class of PhD students around a conference table on the third floor of the new Nano Research Center. Hisao was finishing his pathology presentation with slides showing stained sections of mouse brains. While Dr. Murray studied the screen and nodded, A Li stared out the large window at the campus below. As the evening lights came on, she watched the strange man wearing black who worked in the Center. He stood talking to someone wearing a uniform, then approached the entrance to the building and disappeared from view.
A Li turned her attention back to the slide presentation and the people in the room. Dr. Murray, a full professor at the Center and one of the world leaders in research on reprogramming the DNA of stem cells, sat at the head of the table. He was the only American in the room. Six of the eight students in her research group were Asian and all but A Li were graduates of the top science universities in their countries. If A Li counted herself, there were three Chinese. The difference was, she was female and a member of the Zang ethnic minority in China, known to the rest of the world as Tibetan, and grew up in the TAR—the Tibetan Autonomous Region. A Li was taller than most Chinese women, not as delicate, had a ruddy complexion and wore her thick black hair in a single long braid. Like other successful Asian students, she had worked her way up through high-pressure schools, studying six days a week, twelve hours a day, sacrificing everything else in her life until she passed the gaokao—the Chinese college entrance examination. While most female Tibetan college graduates became teachers or minor government functionaries, A Li graduated at the top of her college class and went on for a Master’s degree in biochemistry. She felt she was as smart as the two Chinese men in her research group, but she had studied at Yunnan University in a remote south-west province of China.
A Li was not a member of the Communist Party or part of any other influential group in China. Her parents were simple people and her father, her Pa Lags, was only a provincial science teacher who did not have the connections necessary to allow her to study at the best school, the University of Science and Technology of China. After working at a low-level job at a pharmaceutical company for a year, she received a loan from her provincial government to study for a PhD in America. California University had delayed her application for months while they verified her grades because another Chinese applying to bioscience studies had added phony courses to his transcript. After A Li arrived, she discovered the authentication policy did not apply to graduates of the top Chinese universities.
Hisao finished his presentation, turned off his laser pointer and hit the button to retract the screen into the ceiling.
“Excellent,” Dr. Murray said. “No tumors after 12 weeks? This builds on David Zhao’s findings. When do you dissect your next group of mice?”
“Eight more weeks,” Hisao said. “Twenty weeks after transplantation.” Hisao spoke perfect English, but had the habit of sometimes looking up at the ceiling when he spoke. He rarely made eye contact.
“Excellent,” Dr. Murray said again and looked through his papers. “I have a note here to remind you all that this is the last chance to order mice from the Colony for next semester, so get your requirements to the lab manager by the end of the week.” He sipped his coffee and swiveled his chair to face A Li.
She froze with fear.
“A Li, please update us on the progress of your work.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “You are progressing?”
A Li was still struggling with English, but the impatience in his voice was unmistakable. As part of her PhD work, she was working on stem cells, the building blocks of the body. Dr. Murray’s cutting-edge research focused on altering the DNA in a key gene that was capable of turning a stem cell into a blood cell. The investigation had progressed to the point at which they were injecting and growing the altered cells in mice. If successful, Dr. Murray would eventually show the world that he could reprogram the existing DNA in blood cells to correct genetic defects in humans. It would also lead to the ability to change one blood type into another—a major breakthrough in the fields of blood transfusion and organ transplant rejection. Dr. Murray was competing against researchers at other universities and institutes around the world. The first group to successfully reprogram the DNA, document the process and recreate the results would find a place in medical history. If it happened in his lab, both Dr. Murray and CU would also reap incredible financial rewards.
When she arrived at CU, A Li was excited to be part of Dr. Murray’s important research. She thought her work was going well, but sensed from the beginning that he lacked confidence in her. He seemed more critical of her than of the other students. Perhaps Dr. Murray would treat her with more respect if her family were more important.
“I...uh...plan to harvest the first mouse tonight,” she said.
“Please start with a summary of your project.” Dr. Murray looked at her with such intensity that his eyes seemed to bore into her head. “It’s never too soon to learn to give a concise and informative overview of your research. You may have to do it for a grant review, or for a peer group evaluation.”
“I am growing human blood cells in mice—”
Ignoring her, Dr. Murray continued on, “It’s doubly important for those of you who are not yet proficient in English.”
“Uh,” she continued, “I am using SCID mice to—”
“No,” Dr. Murray interrupted again. Now his impatience was tinged with anger. “You are using Severe Combined Immuno Deficiency mice.”
“Yes, I am using Severe Combined Immuno Deficiency mice...”
A Li paused. Now she was terrified. She hated speaking in front of a group, even people in her lab, without a detailed outline of what she wanted to say. Dr. Murray was right; she was not proficient in English. Mandarin was her second language. English was still a distant third. She glanced across the table at Tanay. He gave her an encouraging smile.
Dr. Murray drummed his fingers on the table and continued to stare at her. “You are using Severe Combined Immuno Deficiency mice which can accept human blood cells without rejection.” He pushed his glasses up on top of his head. “Then,” he gestured at A Li with his pen, “you are irradiating the mice to destroy their bone marrow...Yes?”
A Li nodded.
“And, finally,” Dr. Murray made more stabbing motions with the pen, “you are injecting them with the altered human blood cells and tracing their migration to the various organs.”
“Yes, yes.” A Li looked down at her laptop. She felt humiliated in front of her classmates. “That is correct,” she repeated softly.
“For next week, A Li,” he went on, “please prepare a brief summary of your research and update us on your progress. Be prepared to discuss the alteration in the mechanisms which prevent the mouse from rejecting the human cells.” He drained his coffee, pushed his chair back and stood up. “OK, have a good evening. I’m available for consultation on projects or grant applications if anyone needs help.” On his way out, he picked up the paper platter of uneaten bagels and stale cream cheese left over from the morning and tossed it into the trash. The students closed their notebooks, turned off their laptops, filled their backpacks and followed Dr. Murray out.
A Li remained seated and held her head in her hands.
Tanay came back into the conference room after the others departed and put his hand on her shoulder.. “Cheer up,” he said. “Interested in some dinner? Italian? Ethiopian? Brazilian? Mexican? How about Chinese?”
“Thanks,” A Li said and tried to smile. “I’ve got work to do.” An Indian, Tanay was her only friend in the research group and, in fact, her only male friend in Los Angeles. She didn’t know him very well, but liked him.
“You’ve always got work to do.” He sat down and put his feet up on the conference table. “You have a life too.”
She had never noticed the size of his feet.
“How about takeout?” he said. “We could eat dinner here.”
She gave him a look. “I don’t like takeout. No one eats fresh vegetables in this country.” At home, local produce still coated with dirt came to the market in wooden tubs, metal buckets and baskets. When A Li’s host, Professor Chen, took her on her first shopping expedition to a supermarket near the campus, she was overwhelmed at the number of items and was amazed at the variety and quality of the fruits and vegetables. She was astounded to see several men standing around polishing each item before placing it on the counter for sale. With such abundance, she couldn’t understand why everyone ate tacos and KFC.
“C’mon, you need a break,” Tanay insisted.
“Not tonight.” A Li was taking four hours a day of molecular biology, immunology and biological chemistry, working for Dr. Murray to earn her research stipend and attending English language classes. There was no free time for anything else.
“The old man getting to you?”
A Li nodded. “Dr. Murray doesn’t like me.”
“He does the English proficiency number on everyone and he’s always critical until he gets to know you. Once you’re past that, he’s not a bad guy.”
“How long does that take?”
“How long have you been here? Four months?”
“It seems like forever. I’m homesick.”
“It hits everyone, but you’ll get over it.” Tanay looked at her. “Are you staying here after your studies, or are you going back to China?”
“I don’t know, what does it matter?” A Li stared out at the dark campus again. Her home, Zhongdian, was a town with crooked cobblestone streets on a 9,000-foot plateau surrounded by mountain meadows and grazing Yaks. Los Angeles might as well be on another planet. How could anyone be happy in a hot, crowded city where it hardly rained?
“Let’s have dinner tomorrow night,” Tanay said.
“Maybe.” She wasn’t sure what signals Tanay was sending about their relationship. Was his intention more than friendship? Did he want to be her boyfriend? Would he ever try to kiss her? She knew she was ordinary looking, nothing special. Most of her life had been devoted to studying and she never had a chance to date or go to parties. Her sexual experience was limited. When she came to Los Angeles, men stared at her and sometimes brushed by and touched her. Once, an older man, standing next to her on a street corner, whispered in her ear, “Hey honey, I love Asian girls.” She knew little about the more subtle flirtations between men and women. Maybe Tanay wanted to get into bed with her. He was tall and good-looking and she felt attracted to him. She liked his coal black hair and the bronze color of his skin. It reminded her of the skin of the people in Zhongdian, the dark healthy hue they called “plateau blush” which came from the high altitude rays of the sun. She wished his sideburns were shorter but that was of little importance. A Li was unsure how to respond to Tanay and anyhow, there was no room for him in her life. She was busy, there was so much to do and she had her sister.
“Do you own a car?” she asked.
“Could you drive me down to the Flower Mart?”
“Sure, I could take you down there sometime.”
“It would have to be tomorrow.”
“I’m looking for iris flowers for my twin sister. It’s her birthday.”
“You have a twin sister? You never mentioned her. What’s her name?”
“A Mei. Our names come from the Meili Snow Mountain Range.”
“Where is she? Is she here in Los Angeles?”
A Li was silent for a moment. “She died when we were seven.”
“Twenty two years ago. She was hit by a car. A black Mercedes.”
“A hit and run?”
“Yes. It was a Party member. No one else had a car like that.”
“Where did this happen?”
“At home, in Zhongdian. After the accident, the police drove us to the People’s Hospital in Lijiang. It took three hours. I was so frightened for my sister.”
“And she died on the way?”
“No, she died in the hospital.” A Li took a tissue out of her pocket and dabbed her eyes. After all the years, she still became emotional when she spoke of her sister’s death. “They transfused her with whatever blood they had. I don’t know what type it was, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t understand it at the time, but she had a hemolytic reaction. Our family has Bombay Blood. Her body rejected the transfusion and shut down from organ failure.”
“Bombay Blood, what’s that?”
“We were so close. I still miss her. When she died, part of me died too.” A Li rubbed her eyes and felt embarrassed in front of Tanay. “Her birthday is tomorrow. Every year, I have gone home to honor her, but for the first time it’s impossible. I want to get some iris. It’s her flower. They grow in Tibet.”
“What’s Bombay Blood,” Tanay asked again. “Should I know what that is?”
“I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. Can you pick me up at twelve-thirty?” She reached for a napkin left on the conference table and scribbled on it. “I live with a Chinese family on Canyon Avenue. Here’s the address. I’ll be waiting outside.”
“I should be in the lab tomorrow,” Tanay murmured. “Do you have a cell phone number in case I have to call you?”
“Yes.” She wrote her number under her address on the napkin. A Li didn’t use her cell phone often unless she was talking to another Chinese. She found it impossible to understand anything in English unless she was face to face with the person speaking.
“It’s your birthday too. Right?”
A Li nodded. “Yes.” She gave Tanay a shy smile, gathered her things together and stuffed them into her backpack. She had several hours of work to do in the laboratory and then had to go to the Colony to retrieve one of her mice for dissection. It was going to be another long night.